TRAVEL

Michael Kerr joins the in­au­gu­ral jour­ney of South Amer­ica’s first lux­ury sleeper train to the shores of Lake Tit­i­caca

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Ex­plore Peru’s stunning coun­try­side through the lux­ury of its new train – Bel­mond An­dean Ex­plorer.

The con­dor, that avian won­der of the An­des, can soar to about 5,000m, go five weeks with­out eat­ing and, when it does alight on car­rion, gob­ble around five ki­los of meat.

On the pre-in­au­gu­ral run last month of South Amer­ica’s first lux­ury sleeper train, the Bel­mond An­dean Ex­plorer, we didn’t quite reach those heights – at La Raya, be­tween Puno and Cusco, we slept at 4,344m and woke to snow on the ground as well as on the peaks. But then we didn’t have to work up an ap­petite, ei­ther. At ev­ery stage in our jour­ney, from Are­quipa, a city guarded by three vol­ca­noes, to Cusco, cap­i­tal of the Inca em­pire, we were fed and wa­tered well. Like the con­dors, we gained post-pran­dial pounds. We were also left breath­less.

The landscape of Peru does that to you – not just metaphor­i­cally, as in the cliché, but lit­er­ally. Soroche, that mys­te­ri­ous alti­tude sick­ness that can lay low an Olympic ath­lete and spare a couch potato, claimed a few vic­tims; the train’s doc­tor wasn’t en­tirely idle. And Peru, which many of our party were see­ing for the first time, claimed yet more hearts.

Bel­mond (for­merly Ori­ent Ex­press Ho­tels) has been a player in tourism here since 1999, when the com­pany’s founder, James Sher­wood – the man be­hind the Venice Sim­plon-Ori­ent-Ex­press – was in­vited to be­come an in­vestor. Hav­ing started with the Sanc­tu­ary Lodge at Machu Pic­chu and the lux­ury day train that runs to it, the Hi­ram Bing­ham, Bel­mond has built up a port­fo­lio of six ho­tels.

The lat­est was ac­quired (or, rather, reac­quired, for the com­pany owned it in the Nineties) just be­fore our visit.

So it was that, fol­low­ing an evening ar­rival in Lima and a morn­ing flight to Are­quipa, we set out not on the rails but on the road, head­ing for Las Ca­sitas del Colca, a com­plex of rus­tic bun­ga­lows on the edge of the Colca Canyon, which, at 100km long

It’s hard to be­lieve the CAR­RIAGES were built in the Nineties, for they have DE­TAIL­ING that re­calls the Twen­ties or Thir­ties: art nou­veaustyle ceil­ings; ma­hogany pan­elling stained the colour of IVORY…

and about 3,400m at its deep­est, makes its coun­ter­part in Ari­zona look a lit­tle less grand.

To reach it, we trav­elled for six hours through a landscape of soar­ing peaks and plung­ing gorges; a landscape that bears wit­ness to the shift­ing by na­ture of tec­tonic plates and the sculpt­ing by man of ter­raced fields. The old­est of the lat­ter were pro­duc­ing pota­toes and corn in AD200. From Las Ca­sitas we set out the fol­low­ing morn­ing for the Cruz del Con­dor, a cross mark­ing a point where the birds of­ten rise on the ther­mals. Roberto Alayza, our lean and learned guide, had briefed us on the dif­fer­ences be­tween males and fe­males, so I could prob­a­bly have dis­cerned them through binoc­u­lars had I been both­ered to squint. I didn’t: it was enough to marvel that a bird weigh­ing up to 11kg was soar­ing both above our heads and, in the canyon, be­neath our feet.

Then it was on to an­other view­point, one we Bel­mond cus­tomers had pretty much to our­selves. Chairs were placed yards from the edge, while chefs in im­mac­u­late whites set up ta­bles to serve us wraps of stir-fried beef or chicken with yel­low-chilli sauce, fol­lowed by pear tatin.

An edgy break­fast wasn’t their only trick. They dug our lunch out of the ground.

On a eu­ca­lyp­tus-shaded lawn at Las Ca­sitas, they in­tro­duced us to the Peru­vian tra­di­tions of the hu­a­tia and the pachamanca. The for­mer is a hole in the earth, topped with rocks and leaves in a dome where a fire is kin­dled. The lat­ter is the dish cooked in­side – this time chicken, lamb and other meats with

corn and pota­toes. If it looked grubby, it tasted sur­pris­ingly good.

On our third day, we fi­nally saw the train, its car­riages of mid­night-blue and ivory (as the Bel­mond de­sign­ers have it) gleam­ing above the ichu grass at the sta­tion of Tambo Canahuas, near a spot where the winds, rac­ing across a plain, come up against a rock face and carve it into the shape of wig­wams.

The car­riages had al­ready been on quite a jour­ney. They were built for the Great South Pa­cific Ex­press, which ran from 1999 to 2003 be­tween Syd­ney and Ku­randa, close to Cairns. Bel­mond had them shipped across the Pa­cific – along with crys­tal chan­de­liers, crock­ery and a baby grand pi­ano – for restora­tion and re­design in the Cusco work­shops of Peru Rail.

Af­ter words of wel­come from Bel­mond’s managing di­rec­tor for Peru, Lau­rent Car­ras­set, the train was blessed by two Fran­cis­can priests in brown robes, who are clearly used to han­dling the me­dia. The el­der, who’d had sev­eral cam­eras shoved in his face while say­ing the prayers, be­gan his dis­pens­ing of holy wa­ter with a good splash on the of­fend­ers’ lenses. And then we were off.

The vicuña, the most skit­tish of Peru’s camelid fam­ily, can be hit­ting nearly 32kph 45 min­utes af­ter birth. The train – hauled by a Cana­dian-built 1970s diesel of Peru Rail – was some­times a tiny bit slower. That speed was ne­ces­si­tated by fre­quent bends, which en­abled pho­tog­ra­phers in the ob­ser­va­tion car at the rear to cap­ture great im­ages of the front. Mean­while, oth­ers were ex­am­in­ing cab­ins and com­mu­nal rooms.

It’s hard to be­lieve the car­riages were built in the Nineties, for they have de­tail­ing that re­calls the Twen­ties or Thir­ties: art nou­veau-style ceil­ings; ma­hogany pan­elling stained the colour of ivory; mar­quetry work on bath­room floors with a fleur-de-lis pat­tern; in­tri­cate grilles over the air-con vents, made of brass but now fin­ished the colour of chrome.

Car­riages are named af­ter the lo­cal flora and fauna. My cabin (one with a dou­ble bed rather than bunk) was Chilca – named af­ter a plant that yields a tex­tile dye, bas­ket ma­te­rial and an anti-in­flam­ma­tory medicine.

In the decor, one con­stant is the chakana cross, a three-stepped sym­bol that dates from Inca times and rep­re­sents the heav­ens, the earth and the un­der­world. It’s em­bla­zoned on the out­side of the car­riages, on the jack­ets worn by guides, on nap­kins and glasses on ta­bles and on the bathrobes and tow­els in the cab­ins.

We had been told that the glo­be­trot­ting Diego Muñoz, one of Peru’s

Our BOAT took us to the Is­las Uros, a FLOAT­ING WORLD made pos­si­ble by to­tora reed. The reed can be used to build IS­LANDS, HOUSES on those is­lands, and BOATS to sail around those is­lands

most gifted chefs, would be show­ing us how to pre­pare ce­viche, that ap­pe­tiser of raw fish mar­i­nated in salt, lime juice, onions and chilli. We hadn’t been told that he would be do­ing it out­doors, the train at his back, lakes and moun­tains to the front.

‘My grand­mother would let it sit all night,’ he told us as the rain spat; we voted to stay out­side. ‘Then the Ja­panese came over and taught us how to eat it straight away.’ And that is ex­actly what we did.

He and his team, work­ing in a kitchen mea­sur­ing about 15m by 2m, pro­duced dishes that not only made the most of Peru­vian pro­duce but even seemed to con­jure the landscape. His pre­sen­ta­tion on the last night of potato cream, seared scal­lops and parme­san put me strongly in mind of an is­land float­ing on Lake Tit­i­caca. Af­ter Machu Pic­chu, where Bel­mond’s other Peru­vian train runs, the world’s high­est nav­i­ga­ble lake is a place ev­ery vis­i­tor wants to see. There is, as the map on our boat from Puno sta­tion ac­knowl­edged, a well-worn ‘Cir­cuito Turis­tico de Lago Ti­tikaka’. We didn’t de­vi­ate from it.

Our boat took us to the Is­las Uros, a float­ing world made pos­si­ble by to­tora reed. The reed can be used to build is­lands, houses on those is­lands, boats to sail around those is­lands, and – when there isn’t a Diego Muñoz avail­able – can even pro­vide a snack.

In an­cient times, these peo­ple lived off fish­ing and hunt­ing; now they catch tourists.

We stepped off the boat to be met on the quay­side with some bev­er­ages, a blaz­ing fire and Pal­lari and Manuel, a duo who pro­vided sooth­ing sounds on sax and acous­tic gui­tar. Then, af­ter a fi­nal din­ner, we were in­vited to the bar car, where Cheguere, a Cusco trio of gui­tarist, bassist and per­cus­sion­ist, urged us not just to sit talk­ing about the train but to dance on it. Some carousers kept the staff up un­til af­ter two in the morn­ing.

I was im­pressed by the warmth and pro­fes­sion­al­ism of the staff. Sev­eral had pre­vi­ously worked on the day train be­tween Cusco and Puno – an An­dean Ex­plorer with­out Bel­mond brand­ing – that was orig­i­nally to be with­drawn when the new sleeper came into ser­vice but will now con­tinue un­der an­other name.

The new train wasn’t with­out its teething prob­lems, at least some of which should have been fixed by the time the first pay­ing cus­tomers boarded. Among them was faulty plumb­ing. On my first morn­ing, I had to shower in cold wa­ter. On my sec­ond, I turned

on the taps and had nei­ther hot nor cold. The key I was given would turn the lock but couldn’t be pulled out of it. The air con­di­tion­ing – which you can’t ad­just your­self – was at first so fierce that I woke with a dry throat. The notes on the in-room ‘di­rec­tory’ in­cluded a map that showed where Wi-Fi would be at its strong­est. In my ex­pe­ri­ence it wasn’t weak; it was sim­ply un­avail­able. But then the point of a jour­ney like this is not to main­tain con­nec­tions with the worka­day world; it’s to slip those bounds and, for as long as you can, en­ter one of fan­tasy.

The real trou­ble, for those of us lucky enough to have trav­elled on a lux­ury sleeper train at alti­tude, was that even­tu­ally we had to come back down to earth.

THE TRAIN IN NUM­BERS

US$10 mil­lion Cost of get­ting the Bel­mond An­dean Ex­plorer up and run­ning 55 Staff on board 48 Pas­sen­gers 24 En suite cab­ins (two deluxe dou­ble, six ju­nior dou­ble, 11 twin, five bunk-bed), in­clud­ing one that’s wheel­chair-ac­ces­si­ble

2 Din­ing cars (Llama and Muna) 1 Spa car (Pi­coflor), to be added later 1 Ob­ser­va­tion car (Ichu) 1 Pi­ano bar (Maca)

High up, watch the 11kg con­dor soar, then look down, and you’ll see your din­ner be­ing pre­pared – pachamanca is cooked in a hole in the earth

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From Cusco, the an­cient cap­i­tal of the In­cas, the luxurious train runs through the high­est plains of the An­des

There’s a lot to en­joy on the train jour­ney – you can sam­ple his­tory, cul­ture and pop­u­lar Peru­vian dishes

Trav­ellers get a chance to see up close the cul­ture of Is­las Uros be­fore the train jour­ney cul­mi­nates on the shores of Lake Tit­i­caca

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